I believe that angels walk among us. Sometimes we don’t know who they are, and other times it becomes apparent to us that a certain person is far more special than the rest of us mere mortals. Sharon Saunders was one of the angels, a gentle loving and compassionate soul whose smile lit up rooms and warmed hearts. I am one of the lucky ones who got to meet her and call her my friend.
Toward the end of my career as a teacher I took a leap of faith and accepted a job as a high school Algebra I and Algebra II teacher at the first KIPP Charter high school in Houston. I had heard about the different ways that the KIPP schools operated on one of Oprah’s programs and I was fascinated by their unique approach for educating students that included, small classes and deep involvement of a trifecta of parents, teachers and students. Their educational philosophy was built around an idea that required teams of teachers, social workers and counselors who would get to know each student and his or her family personally.
Sharon Saunders was a gifted social worker with a degree from Columbia University that she earned while living in New York City.. She was the person who would help guide our students through their socio-emotional needs and she was exceptionally well suited for the task. Sharon genuinely cared about the well-being of every person who walked into her office. She greeted students, parents and teachers with her ever present warm and welcoming smile. Everyone had a sense that when they spoke to Sharon she would listen with laser sharp focus and then solve whatever problems had occurred with an uncanny wisdom.
Students sought Sharon’s counsel because they all knew that she was honestly concerned about each and every one of them. She took time to get to know them no matter how long it took to confide their fears, abuses, longings and dreams. She knew when they were troubled and what they needed to be their best selves. I always believed that Sharon was the heart and soul of our high school because she saved so many students, parents and even teachers from their anxieties and demons. Talking with her was a spiritual experience in the feeling that she somehow always managed to find and love the essence of every person who came to her. Her office was a home away from home, calm in a storm.
At the end of my first year at Kipp Houston High School those of us on the team assigned to the Class of 2010 embarked on a trip known as the Civil Rights tour. We loaded onto charter buses with the freshman class and the team that had worked with them all year long to help them become rising sophomores. Sharon and I were assigned the task of making sandwiches for the crew at our various stops each day. Over rows of bread that we filled with luncheon meat and cheese, the two of us got to know each other intimately and locked in our friendship from that moment forward.
The following school year I was named the Dean of Faculty and Sharon became the Director of the Social Work Department. Once each week before the sun had even arisen all of the school administrators would meet to plan, address issues and keep track of the needs of our students and teachers. Sharon always seemed to be the voice of reason that we needed as we guided our many souls. She would listen intently to everything that was being said, only speaking once she had critically heard and thought about all of the viewpoints being voiced. Then in a quiet, measured and soothing tone she always seemed able to get the to very heart of the matter and suggest a solution that worked for everyone concerned. She was brilliant!
I retired five years after I had met Sharon. I worried that I would lose the beautiful connection that I had with her. I need not have had such a thought. She would be by my side without fail. Even upon the death of my mother only days after my final work day at the school, Sharon comforted me in her magically soothing way just as she had done for hundreds of students who sought her almost magical intuitions that calmed and guided them.
A small group who had worked together formed a kind of social club called the Rainbow Connection. Sharon was a charter member of the diverse collection of talented women who met regularly to laugh and feel safe to be themselves. Happily they asked me to join them. Over the years we enjoyed the kind of camaraderie and friendship that lasted even as each of us took different roads in our lives. We laughed and cried and shared sometimes heartbreaking stories. Our meetings at restaurants often lasted until every other customer had left and the manager had to politely ask us to leave. Our guru and voice of reason at those get togethers was always Sharon whose smile reminded us that we were going to be okay.
We saw less of Sharon during the Covid pandemic and the times of isolation that hit us all. Her health began to fail, but she still called to see how we were doing or to let us know about a former student who was hurting that she thought we might want to contact. She tended to downplay her own troubles. She was able to sense when we were feeling discouraged or having difficulties of our own. She selflessly guided every conversation to our needs rather than her own. She was the eternal optimist and woman of intense faith even as her body began to fail her.
I loved Sharon Saunders deeply as did virtually everyone whose path had crossed hers. The students who once sat in her office seeking guidance and love are now adults with college degrees, businesses of their own, families that they adore. All of them speak of Sharon with a kind of reverence. She was the best of the school, the inspiration of their lives, a woman of integrity and devotion to the betterment of every person that she ever met. As the students always said, she was the real deal, someone without a phony bone in her body. She was an angel.
None of us have any doubt that Sharon Saunders is now in her heavenly home free of the physical pain that so often stalked her. The choir of angels have welcomed her as one of them while memories of her and her radiant smile will continue to bring light those of us who were fortunate enough to have known her. Sharon was the best of the rainbow that we forged. We will miss her deeply and always be thankful that we knew her.